‘Big Santa’ has waved for four decades at Pennywick

Dale Rutkowski, head foreman at Pennywick Tree Farm near Vassar in Tuscola County, wraps a Christmas tree with string in the wrapping machine. When customers cut down a Christmas tree at the farm at 3295 Sanilac Road, workers drill its trunk, shake the tree and wrap it for no additional charge. (Photo by John Cook)
Dale Rutkowski, head foreman at Pennywick Tree Farm near Vassar in Tuscola County, wraps a Christmas tree with string in the wrapping machine. When customers cut down a Christmas tree at the farm at 3295 Sanilac Road, workers drill its trunk, shake the tree and wrap it for no additional charge. (Photo by John Cook)

Travelers along M-46 in Tuscola County tend to remember the 21-foot-tall Fiberglas “big Santa” waving at them next to the dirt trail leading into Pennywick Tree Farm.
Families visiting the farm in Juniata Township to cut their own Christmas tree make more memories still.
“The kids love that Santa,” said Star Filkins, 33, of Vassar, who visited the farm last year with her husband, Robert Angle, and their three sons: Austin Angle, 15, Joshua Angle, 14, and Robby Angle, 7.
“It’s a memory you can make with the kids and it stays with them forever,” Filkins said. “They say ‘Remember that place with the big Santa?’”
Star Filkins said her family plans to return to Pennywick Tree Farm, 3295 Sanilac Road, sometime this month to cut the family tree. Wagons pulled by teams of mules or horses take customers to their trees today and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and again at those times on Dec. 10 and Dec. 11.
Musicians playing Christmas music will be aboard the wagons from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today and Sunday, and at those times again Dec. 10 and Dec. 11.
“That Santa Claus out front is a landmark,” said Dale Rutkowski, 51, head foreman at the tree farm where owners James and Pattie Kimmel placed the giant Santa in the late 1970s after they bought the tree farm.
“I was out in Pennsylvania and I had a ‘Pennywick Tree Farm’ hat on, and someone said ‘Where’s that at?’ and I told them it was in Michigan over on M-46, and they had seen the Santa,” Rutkowski said. “They knew where the tree farm was — and they run a hotel in Pennsylvania.”
Pattie Kimmel said she and her husband, both of whom grew up in Saginaw County, have tried to make a visit to their Tuscola County tree farm more than a trip to a business.
“When you shop for a Christmas tree, I take it to be an experience, and one that leaves a fond memory and not just the memory of cutting down a tree,” said Pattie Kimmel, who joined with her husband to buy the tree farm about 40 years ago.
The business also sells pre-cut trees, grave blankets and other items.
“I like that it’s kind of an all-in-one place,” Filkins said. “You can get a real wreath there and you can get your tree, and then there was the sing-along on the wagon last year. Everyone was given laminated sheets with Christmas carols (printed on them).
“It’s very family-oriented.”
The farm, which sells Christmas trees from about 90 acres of land for those wanting to cut their own, carries about 10 species of trees. Workers apply paint to scotch pine trees to help them keep their color, Pattie Kimmel said.
The Fraser fir is a popular species, Rutkowski said. “Most of the TV shows are showing them now, and they can hang the ornaments on them better — they have a bigger, thicker branch coming out, and a little more spacing in between branches,” Rutkowski said.
Filkins said workers helped her family pick what kind of tree they wanted to buy before they boarded the wagon headed out among the pine, spruce and fir trees.
“They’re very helpful,” Filkins said.
James Kimmel said he sees more and more customers such as Filkins and her family who want to cut a real tree instead of buying an artificial one.
“People are getting back to the natural tree instead of the plastic,” Kimmel said. “We’re getting a lot of young people buying natural trees. In other words, if their mother and dad were into the plastic trees, they now want natural because they can bring their little ones in here. There’s a big change going on.”
Through the years, Pennywick Tree Farm, about six miles northeast of Vassar, has become a stop for those headed to the tourist town of Frankenmuth, about 15 miles from the tree farm. (Story continues below Santa)

This 21-foot-tall Fiberglas Santa Claus was placed at the entrance to Pennywick Tree Farm in the late 1970s. James and Pattie Kimmel, operators of the farm along M-46 in Tuscola County’s Juniata Township, have owned the farm for about 40 years. Retail demand for Christmas trees is better when it snows because “it’s very festive then,” Pattie Kimmel said. (Photos by John Cook)
This 21-foot-tall Fiberglas Santa Claus was placed at the entrance to Pennywick Tree Farm in the late 1970s. James and Pattie Kimmel, operators of the farm along M-46 in Tuscola County’s Juniata Township, have owned the farm for about 40 years. Retail demand for Christmas trees is better when it snows because “it’s very festive then,” Pattie Kimmel said. (Photos by John Cook)

“We get people here from Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania coming to cut their own trees,” Kimmel said. “They come up and they buy their tree, and then they head for Frankenmuth to spend the weekend there.”
Rutkowski said the farm sells Christmas trees up to 14 feet in height, and once sold a 20-foot-tall blue spruce.
“We get a lot of people from the Detroit area with high ceilings,” Kimmel said. “We’re about the only ones that are selling that tall of a tree.”
During the mid-1980s, the farm also was known for a miniature train that carried customers through the woods.
“The train went back a mile and a half, and we had bridges back there and all that, but the insurance companies put us out of business with that,” Kimmel said.
Kimmel said the farm also includes more than 150 acres — apart from the 90 acres where customers cut their own trees — where workers harvest trees wholesale, selling them to garden centers and farm markets in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky.
Rutkowski said the farm sells about 20,000 trees wholesale each year, and a few thousand retail trees to customers coming to purchase or cut their own.
Trees, depending on size, range in price from $15 to $150, Pattie Kimmel said. A 6-foot-tall Scotch pine costs about $34, said Rutkowski. The cost includes the shaking and wrapping of the tree, and the drilling of a hole in the bottom of the trunk.
About 12 employees work at the tree farm during the peak of Christmas tree season in late November and in December.
“You can always do better but I feel we’re very fortunate, because businesses aren’t successful without good help,” Pattie Kimmel said. “I feel we’re successful because of the young men who work for us.
“Some of them started working here 15 or 20 years ago. They have full-time jobs, good jobs, but still come back and work for us on the weekends. It’s really like a family organization.”
Rutkowski said some of those who worked at the farm through its four decades of operation are loyal customers.
“I see so many of them still come through, but now they’re buying trees with their families,” he said.
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at gilchrist@tcadvertiser.com

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